Barack Obama: reconnect progressive politics with religious vision

Leigh E. Schmidt in The Wilson Quarterly:

Profile3_obamaDetractors of American religious seeking have been building their case for a while now. A bellwether was Habits of the Heart (1985), the best-selling, multiauthored sociological study of the corrosive effects individualism was having on American civic and religious institutions. The authors deeply lamented “liberalized versions” of morality and spirituality and argued that the old romantic ideals of self-reliance and the open road were now undermining the welfare of community, family, and congregation. “Finding oneself” and “leaving church” had, sadly enough, become complementary processes in a culture too long steeped in the expressive individualism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and their fellow wayfarers. More and more Americans were crafting their own religious stories apart from the rich moral vocabularies and collective memories that communities of faith provided. The social costs of such disjointed spiritual quests were evident not only in the fraying of church life but in eroding commitments to public citizenship, marriage, and family.

All this criticism of the “new spirituality” has obscured and diminished what is, in fact, an important American tradition, one in which spiritual journeying has long been joined to social and political progressivism. Emerson’s “endless seeker” was, as often as not, an abolitionist; Whitman’s “traveling soul,” a champion of women’s rights; Henry David Thoreau’s “hermit,” a challenger of unjust war. A good sense of the continuing moral and political import of this American vocabulary of the spirit comes from Barack Obama, the recently elected Democratic senator from Illinois. Obama has said that, despite the results of the 2004 election, it “shouldn’t be hard” to reconnect progressive politics with religious vision: “Martin Luther King did it. The abolitionists did it. Dorothy Day did it. . . . We don’t have to start from scratch.”

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